12.07.2011

gluten-free ratio rally confessions


Maybe it's just me, but sometimes these Ratio Rally posts have a bit of a confessional air about them.

This is not a bad thing. It's nice, as a baker, to read about your peer's slip-ups in the kitchen, the flavor combinations that they thought would work but flopped, the recipes that they'd never before tackled for fear they'd be too advanced, or even the everyday challenges posed by equipment failure or last-minute ingredient substitutions. Knowing that others have had to deal with some of the same problems I've encountered during my baking career? It makes everyone seem that much more authentic, relatable, human.

It also brings into focus the "Rally" part of this endeavor. It's not merely about the rush and enthusiasm of everyone posting about the same topic on the same day. It's about reaching out to each other, and all of you, to share knowledge, swap stories, and expand our culinary repertoire through collaboration. It's a group effort, for sure.

I was reminded of this late last week, as I was throwing away an entire batch of black walnut shortbread.

Yes, a whole batch, trashed. I never do that. I can't bear to throw away food - it goes against all my sensibilities. And to be honest, rarely do I make anything that is so bad as to be unpalatable. Even if it's not great, we'll still eat it.

But man oh man, were those cookies bad. It all started with the walnuts.

I get crazy ideas sometimes. Randomly, I'll remember hearing or reading about some food or ingredient that I've never tried, never even seen, maybe, and I'll decide then and there that not only do I need to track some down immediately, but that I'm going to love it unconditionally, and will soon be trumpeting it's virtues to anyone who will listen. So it was with the black walnuts.

Everything I'd read made them out to be a gourmet delight, much better than conventional, English walnuts, and worth the splurge. So I splurged, and spent a lot of money on a tiny little bag of nuts, took it home and opened it, and . . .

Ewww. What's that smell? Have they gone bad? The expiration date's months away! But there's a sweet, almost alcoholic air coming from those nuts. Do nuts ferment? A taste reveals no answers, only more questions. Why are they so . . . funky? Is that really a trace of blue cheese under all those dusty, sweetly-stale layers?

Fortunately, I'd bought two bags (assuming, of course, that I would love them so much that I might need to start stockpiling them), so out came specimen number two. Also fermented-scented and weird. Why my red flags weren't waving wildly in my face, I don't know. But I kept going.

Convinced that all those online resources couldn't be wrong about the luxurious gourmet-ness of black walnuts, I toasted some, ground them up, and mixed them into a standard shortbread recipe.

While baking, the magic of butter and sugar managed to muffle any off-scents the walnuts were emitting, and I was genuinely looking forward to trying the cookies. I broke off pieces for myself and Josh, and took a bite. I immediately knew it wasn't right, but I didn't really have more than a split second to think about why before my attention was drawn to what Josh was doing. What Josh's face was doing, more specifically.

It had gone into convulsions. His mouth was twisting side to side in a truly unnatural way. His eyes were scrunched up, practically closed, and his cheeks were sucked in, even as his tongue made acrobatic tumbles in and out of his mouth.

He was, to put it mildly, in the throes of the most vile flavor he'd ever eaten.

Let me tell you, it doesn't feel good to know that you made a cookie that caused your husband to gag and choke and make references to all the disgusting, nasty things you're never supposed to write about on a food blog. Not good at all.

Clearly, there was no room for discussion, no nuanced debate over this cookie's traits. It needed to leave our kitchen now.

Stupefied (and chagrined), I took to Facebook the next day, wondering what others knew about black walnuts. Turns out, many people don't like them. "Odd," "vile," and "funky" were all mentioned. Huh. I started to feel a little bit better. It wasn't completely my fault that Josh had to wash his mouth out; black walnuts have a very peculiar flavor, and it seems they're one of those love-it-or-hate-it things. I wish I had known this earlier. (Our unscientific tests point to a heavy "hate it" trend, as everyone at the restaurant was also revolted by the nuts. We even ordered a box of them from one of our suppliers, just in case the grocery store inventory really was spoiled, and the response was the same. Maybe they're not so luxurious after all.)

However, I couldn't just chalk the loss up to experience and walk away. I needed walnut shortbread. I needed it for the restaurant, for a new dessert I'm developing, and I needed it for the Ratio Rally, which is all about cookies this month. I needed to make this work.


Luckily, all it took was using regular walnuts in the recipe. I'm normally not a big fan of walnuts; hence my excitement over a "gourmet" walnut that promised a different taste. But between toasting the nuts and using a high-quality butter, plus the addition of a hint of cardamom, the bitter, dry flavor I always associate with walnuts was nowhere to be found in these cookies.

And aside from teaching me that some foods are best left untouched, my failed batch of shortbread reminded me of a little baking trick, one of those things I seem to periodically remember and then forget again. When I had tried the black walnut shortbread, before being overcome by the awful flavor, I had noticed that the texture was just a bit too dry, too crumbly. (Even for shortbread, which is supposed to be a light, crumbly cookie.) I didn't want to tinker with the ratio by adding more butter, so I fixed the texture problem with an egg yolk. A hard-cooked, sieved egg yolk, to be precise.

Adding a hard-cooked egg yolk that has been pushed through a fine mesh strainer adds just enough protein and fat to the cookie dough that it becomes enriched in an almost imperceptible way. The flavor is still delicate and buttery, the texture crumbly and melt-in-your-mouth, but it holds together just a bit better, and feels just a bit softer on the tongue. It's a little bit of magic, taking an almost-there cookie to perfect.

Thank you so much to the lovely Caroline of The G-Spot Revolution for hosting this month. And please be sure to follow the links to all of the Rally-er's delicious posts. With so many incredible options at your fingertips, your holiday cookie planning can stop right here!

Amanda | Gluten Free Maui | Simple Shortbread
Amie Valpone | The Healthy Apple |
Grapefruit Sugar Cookies
Brooke | B & the boy! |
Candy Cane Shortbread
Caleigh | Gluten Free[k] |
Mulled Spice Cookies
Caneel | Mama Me Gluten Free |
Cardamom Date Cookies
charissa | zest bakery |
Coconut Peanut Butter Chocolate Chip Cookies
Caroline | The G-Spot | Double Chocolate Chip Peppermint Cookies
Claire | Gluten Freedom |
Chai Latte Cashew Cookies
Erin | The Sensitive Epicure |
Spritz Cookies with Jam
gretchen | kumquat |
Classic Sugar Cookies
Irvin | Eat the Love |
Apple Brown Butter Bay Leaf Spice Cookies
Jean | Gluten Free Doctor Recipes |
Reindeer Cookies
Jenn | Jenn Cuisine |
Basler Brunsli
Jonathan| The Canary Files |
Vegan Salted Oatmeal Cherry Cookies
Karen | Cooking Gluten Free! |
Mexican Wedding Cakes
Lisa from Gluten Free Canteen |
Molasses Rum Raisin Cookies
Mary Fran | frannycakes |
Pinwheel Cookies
Meaghan | The Wicked Good Vegan |
Vegan Chocolate Chip Cookies
Meredith | Gluten Free Betty |
Chocolate Peppermint Cookies
Morri | Meals With Morri|
Stevia Sweetened & Grain-Free Thumbprint Cookies with Apricot Preserves
Pete & Kelli | No Gluten, No Problem|
Belgian Speculaas Cookies
Rachel | The Crispy Cook |
Melomakarona
Shauna | Gluten-Free Girl | Soft Molasses Cookies
Silvana Nardone | Silvana's Kitchen | Old-School Italian Jam-Filled Hazelnut Cookies
T.R. | No One Likes Crumbley Cookies |
Cinnamon Lemon Cookies



Walnut Shortbread
Yields one 8-inch round shortbread; recipe can be doubled or tripled

The ratio for this recipe is roughly 3 flour: 2 fat: 1 sugar (The ground nuts are included as part of the 'flour' in this ratio.)

22 grams raw walnuts, toasted in a 325ºF oven for 8-10 minutes or until fragrant, and cooled
1 Tbsp granulated sugar
121 grams Tara's gluten-free pastry flour
½ tsp xanthan gum or psyllium husk powder
½ tsp cardamom
113 grams (1 stick) best-quality unsalted butter, room temperature
52 grams confectioner's sugar, sifted
½ tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp fine sea salt
1 hard-cooked egg yolk from 1 large egg, pressed through a fine mesh sieve
Granulated sugar, for sprinkling

Preheat the oven to 325ºF. Have ready an eight-inch tart pan, or other appropriately-sized baking pan.

In a small food processor or clean coffee grinder, combine the toasted walnuts and 1 Tbsp sugar and process until finely ground. Set aside.

In a small bowl, whisk together the pastry flour, xanthan gum or psyllium husk powder, and cardamom. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (alternately, you can use a mixing bowl and handheld electric mixer), cream the butter until light and creamy. Add the confectioner's sugar in three additions, beating well after each one and scraping down the paddle and sides of the bowl as needed. Mix in the vanilla, salt, ground walnut mixture, and sieved egg yolk. Finally, add the pastry flour mixture, in three additions, mixing just until combined.

Press the dough evenly into your tart pan, and chill for 10 minutes. Sprinkle surface liberally with sugar, and bake for 30-35 minutes, or until shortbread is golden brown and surface is cracked and crinkly. Cool completely on a wire rack before cutting into wedges. Shortbread keeps, wrapped airtight at room temperature, for up to 1 week.

16 comments:

  1. Sorry to hear about your baking woes. I always cringe when I have to "recycle" a bad baking project. Sometimes it gets made into bread crumbs or stuffing or heads right to the kitchen hound (if there's no chocolate in it) or compost bucket.

    Never knew that black walnuts were so peculiar. Like the cilantro of the nut world. I guess you either hate or love it.

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  2. I think I'll take a pass on the next bag of black walnuts I come across. Sounds awful, but the new batch you made looks awesome and very shortbread-y. Looks fabulous!

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  3. It happens to the best of us. I refer to those bad batches as "dogs." Dogs help keep it real for me. When good is good, and bad is well, woof. Not even the dogs will eat it. This shortbread looks beautiful! And your photos - awesome! I am a big fan of black walnuts. Love them! But they require a lot of work before they are edible. Soaking in lye, roasting, I don't even know.... Merry Christmas to you & your family!

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  4. You are so right, the ratio rally does bring out confessions - at least I confess to all sorts of struggles/trials during mine... I've never had a black walnut before, but I think would be interesting to try - your shortbread looks fantastic!

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  5. Tara,
    so glad you are in the rally this month I always learn something from your posts and this time it is to stay away from black walnuts!!
    the shortbread looks heavenly thank you for sharing your expertise.

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  6. I know this is bad, but your post made me giggle (a little). You have such a way with storytelling...

    Anyway, I am so glad that it worked out in the end. It looks amazing, and I bet it tastes great. I love making one gigantic cookie and cutting it like a pie piece.

    Beautiful work. Beautiful recipe. Amazing!

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  7. Rachel - Thanks. I'm not too torn up about it, just amazed that black walnuts could be so polarizing!

    Lisa - Yeah, I'd advise not shelling out (haha) for a bag of black walnuts without first knowing that you're going to like them. And yes, the successful batch of shortbread was delicious!

    Erin - Now I want to pick your brain! How do you like black walnuts - eaten plain, in baked goods, sweet or savory, etc.? You're the first person I've found who likes them! I'd love to be able to understand, if not personally appreciate, what makes them so wonderful to those who love them.

    Jenn - Thank you! I'd already written my post when I read yours, and had to laugh at all the confessions you threw out. Perfect timing!

    Karen - Thank you, I'm glad to be here, too! Maybe don't take my anti-black walnut stance as indisputable; Erin (whose taste I respect) loves them! But they are definitely a love-it-or-hate-it thing.

    Morri - Laugh away, it really was quite amusing! (Especially watching Josh take that bite. Poor man.) And yes, it all worked out in the end. I'm a big fan of pressing cookie dough into a pan to bake and then just cutting the portions as you want them. The easiest cookie method I've ever come across!

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  8. I'm there with you, Tara. I rarely use the word, but I 'hate' to waste food. And I'm pretty sure that's what's so scary to me about baking. The smallest misstep or miscalculation can sometimes lead to a baked good that is neither 'good' nor edible. And that terrifies me.

    Alas, now that I'm acquainting myself with ratios and percentages, I feel much more secure to venture forward and take risks. Not sure black walnuts will be one of those risks, though. :)

    Thank you for sharing, Tara, and thanks for that wonderful tip on using the egg yolk. Baking wisdom there.

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  9. Please send some to me. I mean the version without the black walnuts, thanks. But you have made me SO hungry. wow. I'm trying these this weekend.

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  10. we actually have a black walnut tree if you can believe it. if i can get to the walnuts before the squirrels, I will definitely attempt these. :)

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  11. Oh goodness, I'm sorry, but you did give me a laugh today with your description of tasting the black walnut batch, lol! The final batch looks incredible and is absolutely beautiful - great job! I don't think I've ever tried black walnuts. I sell Watkins products and this year they came out with a black walnut extract. I believe it's seasonal. Anyway, I haven't tried it but I have customers that have been raving about it and were excited to see it this year. Now I really wonder what all the fuss is about and am afraid to try it!

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  12. Jonathan - I'm so glad the Rally is giving you the confidence to take baking risks! That's the whole point of it: confidence in the kitchen. :)

    Shauna - I would gladly share these with you. I made another batch yesterday, at work, and it was all I could do to not eat all the dough. It is SOOOO good.

    Charissa - I would love to hear about your experiments with black walnuts. Have you harvested them before? From what Erin said, they sound like a lot of work, even before they're ready for baking with. I'm so intrigued by people who like black walnuts. ;)

    Caneel - Thank you! I've never seen black walnut extract, but I wonder if it has the same flavor as the nuts? If you've got customers raving about it, it can't be all that bad. You should try it and report back!

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  13. it makes me happy to know that i'm not the only one who screws things up, and it sounds like a pretty interesting experience with the black walnuts. i'll have to try this recipe sometime, especially the trick with the egg yolk.

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  14. Hi again, Tara!

    Years back, I lived in Washington state, and kept my horse on a small waterfront farm with many fruit trees and berries. One tree was a giant, majestic Black Walnut tree. As they came into season, I was allowed to pick and gather as many as I wished.

    De-husking was the hardest part. The tough, green leathery sheathes are almost impossible to remove...and they stain your hands with a black ink that can last a week, no matter how much soap or bleach you use. I tried using latex gloves, but the ink always managed to seep itself in and under my nails. My fingertips looked like I'd been fingerprinted.

    I finally got so fustrated, I laid a level of green walnuts in a flat box, and drove the car back and forth over them, trying to break those skins off. Hammers did not work. Exacto knives failed. I kid you not, I spent a week trying to open those suckas.

    In time, the only solution was time. Let the green skins dry out, turn a bruised brownish-black, rotted color, and they begin to seperate from the shell.

    When I finaly got a few open, they did have a black papery husk over the nut halves, darker than regular walnuts, but they tasted just fine. A bit sharper. But I love walnuts. I keep all my nuts in the fridge to preserve the oils, which will go rancid on the shelf, much like olive, corn or vegetable oil. It absolutely amazes me that people never figure this out in their homes. When I am cooking at someone elses house, I go for the oil -always stored for ages, even a year, on a dry shelf- and it always smells awfully rancid. I refuse to let it touch my food.

    So I am wondering if your black walnuts had that problem, with the oils going rancid, and that somehow blended with the highly acid bitter taste of the black papery nut husk, to create that blue cheese spoiled taste and scent?

    I wouldn't write off black walnuts just yet. It does sound like there are unreliable sources out there, and that sealing the nuts in plastic, without air to breathe, is just an awful practice.

    And yes, I, too, agree with everyone, your final product looks glorious :D

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  15. Nick - Oh, never fear, I screw up lots more than I ever let on in this space. ;)

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  16. Silky - That's hilarious, you driving over the nuts to try to break them open! I have heard that they are quick labor-intensive! I definitely think you're right, that the nuts I had were rancid. But outside of tracking down a black walnut tree, I'm not sure the odds are good that a non-rancid bunch will show up here. Seems like the practice of packaging them for retail almost ensures they'll be bad by the time you buy them!

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